Writing Lessons from Picture Books: Think Visually

Wrapping up this four-part series on lessons all writers can learn from picture books, today’s letter is about one of the central characteristics that sets picture books apart: their marriage of text and art. In great picture books, the art and text work in synergy, building upon each other to become stronger than either would be alone. Whether or not you are writing a picture book, approaching your work from a visual perspective can be an enlightening exercise—and may even spark new ideas for your writing.

Using Storyboards

Many picture book writers storyboard their manuscript drafts, using a standard 32-page picture book layout to specify which lines will be on each page. (If you are unfamiliar with picture book layouts, check out Tara Lazar’s helpful post.) This process allows authors to better envision what the primary action of each page will be; to take advantage of page turns to build suspense; and to notice areas that could be expanded or condensed.

Of course, storyboarding isn’t unique to picture books—screenwriters and novelists often use storyboards and beat sheets to visualize and strengthen their work. As in picture books, storyboarding can help writers to better envision the primary action of each scene or chapter; to take advantage of pauses between scenes and chapters to build suspense; and to notice areas that could be expanded or condensed.

To storyboard a longer work, start by identifying your current focus. Are you stuck on a particularly tricky chapter? Do you want to flesh out a character arc? Are you trying to improve your book’s overall pace? Are you trying to interweave disjointed plot threads? Are you in the early writing stages and planning to use the storyboard as a rough outline? 

With your current focus in mind, write down each relevant plot point, scene, or chapter on a separate sticky note or notecard. (There are also writing programs like Scrivener that allow you to do this digitally.) Initially, try to keep each point relatively broad, knowing that you can always go into more detail later. Think “Character A argues with Character B” rather than including the blow-by-blow.

Once you’ve completed this exercise, review your notecards. Do some of your notecards read repetitively, suggesting that these story elements could be combined or further differentiated? Are there notecards that seem disconnected from the surrounding plot points? If so, you might need to work on integrating, reordering, or reconsidering those elements.

You can also use your storyboard to check the overall pacing of your book—how many notecards have you written for the beginning, middle, and end? If you have twenty notecards for the opening chapters and three notecards for the climactic and concluding chapters, you may need to explore tightening your opening; expanding your ending; or adjusting how and when individual storylines are introduced and resolved. (For more tips on beat sheets and story structure, consider checking out Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody or Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell.)

Thinking Visually

Another picture book revision strategy is for authors to write out the illustration possibilities for each page of their manuscript. Dynamic manuscripts create opportunities for equally strong illustrations; less engaging texts are more likely to result in illustrations with similar weaknesses. Thinking about potential illustrations can help picture book authors to clarify their vision for each page and to consider how the art and text could potentially intersect.

For example, does each page offer a unique or escalating emotion, action, or detail that the art could expand upon? Are there sections in which the text reads repetitively, which could lead to similarly repetitive illustrations? Are there sections that introduce an overwhelming amount of information, which could result in disjointed or overly complex illustrations? It’s important to note that this is merely a revision tool—generally, picture book texts should avoid including art notes unless absolutely necessary, such as if there is an integral wordless page (e.g. “The villain is abducted by aliens.”) or an unreliable narrator (e.g. “Reginald is actually a bunny, not a lion.”). 

Likewise, it can be useful for authors of longer works to consider the visual elements of their stories. How many settings does your book introduce? How familiar will these settings be to readers? How does your main character’s personality impact the details they (and readers) notice about their world and the characters within it? Do they notice the expensive shoes their neighbor wears because they can only afford to shop at thrift stores? Are they annoyed whenever they hear the roar of a sports car because their former friend drives one? Do they hate going to school on the moon because they are afraid of getting stuck in the airlock? If you are using a storyboard, you can also add these key setting and visual details on the notecard for each plot point, scene, or chapter.

Other exercises authors can use to think beyond the words on the page include creating a mood board; making a soundtrack for your story; creating a playlist one of your characters might listen to; and casting the actors who would play your characters in a movie. While these exercises don’t directly result in a higher word count—and are certainly not necessary in order to write a great book—you might find that trying something new reenergizes you, helps to jumpstart the brainstorming process, or allows you to approach your work from a new perspective.

Your Editor Friend,


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